The Egyptian government is refusing to allow adequate construction of shelters for migrants and refugees fleeing the violence in Libya, according to U.S. government officials and experts.
Over 200,000 people have fled east into Egypt since the outbreak of war in Libya and another 240,000 have poured over the western Libyan border into Tunisia, but the two governments are treating their new visitors quite differently. In Tunisia, the new government has worked aggressively to house the temporary refugees and speed their path to their next destination. In Egypt, the military-led government has left thousands of people to suffer in horrid conditions.
"The government of Tunisia, I have to say, has been fantastic in terms of the hospitality they have provided to these large number of people that have come across their border," said Reuben Brigety, deputy assistant secretary of State at the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. "In Egypt, it's a very different situation."
There are "transit camps" on both borders to aid refugees and migrant workers fleeing Libya get back to their home countries. But at a State Department briefing today, Brigety voiced frustration that Egypt isn't moving quickly enough to combat this crisis. "We've been working with the Egyptian government to make sure people have sufficient access to shelter, but frankly it has taken some time to get those shelters built and to have those people cared for appropriately," said Brigety. "We have continued to ask the government of Egypt to be strong partners in this regard and we continue to work with them to ensure that happens."
Aid organizations have been even more explicit in their criticism of the Egyptian government's handling of the refugee flow from Libya.
"Egypt's ruling government has significantly blocked [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] from providing adequate assistance for all people currently stranded at its border and must immediately reverse this position," Refugees International stated in an April 13 report, following the visit of its officials to the Tunisia-Libya and Egypt-Libya borders. "On the border, many people are forced to live under quite inhumane conditions."
The Egyptian government has directed humanitarian organizations to set up shop in Salloum, a small town near the Libyan border, but has resisted setting up housing to ensure that the migrants and refugees live in sanitary conditions due to concerns it might encourage migrants to stay there longer, the Refugees International report stated.
"Shelter at the site is simply inadequate. Most families are being temporarily housed in the Egyptian border arrival and departure halls. The rest of the population - mainly male migrants - has been forced to sleep outdoors in makeshift shelters made of blankets, wooden posts and suitcases, exposed to low nighttime temperatures," the report stated.
The United States is heavily involved in organizing a long-term solution to the refugee crisis, which depends on moving the refugees and migrants to third party countries. UNHCR and international organizations have evacuated 117,000 third party nationals from Libya to their home countries, and is continuing at a rate of about 5,000 per day, Brigety said.
"This is one of the largest international humanitarian airlifts in history," said Mark Bartolini, director of the office of foreign disaster assistance at USAID.
Bartolini said that conditions in and around Benghazi are "stable" and there aren't significant humanitarian needs in eastern Libya, so a large amount of the food aid allocated for Libya is being "prepositioned" and stored around Libya and the region just in case food supply lines are disrupted sometime in the future.
Today, a huge shipment of food supplies arrived in Alexandria under the auspices of the World Food Program (WFP), including 560 metric tons of vegetable oil and 270 metric tons of pinto beans.
The United States has committed $47 million in humanitarian assistance to deal with the situation in Libya. This support includes $13 million to support the air evacuation, $10 million to the WFP, $7 million to UNHCR to support the refugee camps, $7 million to the Red Cross, and $10 million to other non-governmental organizations.
The international community has pledged nearly $44 million just for evacuation operations, slightly more than one-third of the total $120 million required, according to Refugees International.
"There will need to be firm increases to support our activities going forward," Bartolini said.
JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images
The State Department wants to shift resources toward supporting civil society development in Tunisia, but the top senator on the Foreign Relations Committee is refusing to allow State to transfer money away from an education program in the Middle East for that purpose.
In the wake of the democratic revolutions sweeping the region, the State Department is rapidly trying to reevaluate its approach to Middle East democracy promotion. But without a budget for fiscal 2011, and with no idea of what awaits their budget in fiscal 2012, State is being forced to move money around to speed funds to the Arab countries that are trying to make the difficult transition to democracy.
Three weeks ago, the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative sent Congress what's known as a "congressional notification," requesting permission to shift $29 million in funds from other programs in the region. State wants to shift $20 million to democracy promotion efforts in Tunisia and around the region. Another $7 million would go supporting rule of law and political development programs in the Middle East. $1 million would go to youth councils in Yemen.
In order to fund these initiatives, $10 million would be taken away from the "Tomorrow's Leaders" program, which provides scholarships for Arab youth to attend college at three U.S.-accredited universities in the Middle East.
Three powerful GOP congressional offices initially objected to State taking the funds away from the "Tomorrow's Leaders" program. The lawmakers holding up the money were House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).
The Cable confirmed on April 1 that the three committee members had placed "informational holds" on the reprogramming request. That means they sent additional questions back to State about why the money was being taken from the universities, whether State had tried to find the money elsewhere, and whether another source of the money could be found.
On April 4, Ros-Lehtinen and Granger's office told The Cable that they had lifted their holds, but still thought the State Department's request lacked detail.
"State's original justification for the reprogramming was vague, and additional information was requested," said Ros-Lehtinen spokesman Brad Goehner. "As soon as the information was provided, Chairman Ros-Lehtinen authorized the funds to go through."
"We had some outstanding questions about how the State Department was making its reprogramming decision and we now feel those questions have been addressed," a Granger aide told The Cable.
That leaves Lugar's office as the only one keeping the funds from being disbursed. Lugar spokesman Mark Helmke told The Cable that Lugar is unhappy with how State is dealing with the overall regional response, not just this specific reprogramming request.
"Senator Lugar continues to have a number of questions about the administration's strategy for the upheavals across North Africa and the greater Middle East," said Helmke. "Lugar is concerned the administration is just reacting to events without a plan on where we are going. Democracy building in Tunisia is a good thing. But so are scholarships. How does this re-programming affect other projects in Egypt and elsewhere? The lack of a clear end game strategy for Libya, and the refusal to gain congressional authority, only add to Lugar's concerns."
A Lugar committee staffer told The Cable that Lugar would allow State to move enough money to fund the Tunisia program, but not all the programs in the request. Lugar will also not allow, for now, State to take the money from the educational program.
"We are doing due diligence on this, it's pretty routine, making sure they are not robbing Peter to pay Paul, or rushing money out the door without a solid plan," the staffer said. "If [the educational program] is the only place to find money to respond to Tunisia, or to the many urgent needs in the Middle East and North Africa, the [State] Department should make that case."
The three universities that run the Tomorrow's Leaders program are the American University in Cairo, the American University in Beirut, and the Lebanese American University.
The American University of Beirut (AUB) is represented in Washington by William Hoffman, a registered lobbyist for the university who has been in contact with these GOP offices to make the case for defending the funds. According to the website Opensecrets.org, Hoffman's firm Gryphon International was paid $144,000 by AUB in 2010 and has been working for the university, its only client, for several years.
In an interview with The Cable, Hoffman confirmed he had been in contact with both Lugar and Granger's office recently to make the case for the education money.
"The issue is how do we best promote democracy building and sustainable economic development in the Arab world. People with very good intentions can disagree about the best way to do that, but it's certainly my feeling that you can hardly do better than to provide American-style education," Hoffman said. "There is a tendency in government to look at short- term, rather than long-term goals and in some cases that can be a mistake."
President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres discussed how the Israeli-Palestinian peace process fits into the wave of democratization sweeping through the Arab world during a working lunch and then a 40 minute one-on-one meeting on Tuesday..
"We had an extensive discussion about what's happened in the Middle East," Obama said at a press conference after the meetings. "I think he and I both share a belief that this is both a challenge and an opportunity; that with the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it's more urgent than ever that we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis."
At the working lunch, Obama was joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, NSC Chief of Staff Brooke Anderson, NSC Senior Director Dennis Ross, incoming U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, and NSC Senior Director Puneet Talwar.
Both presidents expressed the opinion that bringing the Arab-Israeli conflict to a resolution would help the United States and Israel support democratic change in the Middle East.
"We see it as a clash between generations, a clash between those who want democracy and those who want to go backwards," an Israel official who was present at the lunch told The Cable. "One of the ways to make sure the right side wins is if there could be progress in the peace process."
The most immediate issue for Israel how to set good relations with the next government in Egypt. Obama said the two presidents discussed ways for both countries to support Egypt's economic development as a means of supporting the Egyptian youth. Peres believes restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would also help Israel navigate its changing relationship with Egypt.
"Peres' message is that Palestinians and Israel now have a common interest to get to negotiations, because both sides want Egypt to continue to support the peace process," the Israel official said.
But Obama, following the breakdown of the direct negotiations he and Clinton worked so hard to push forward in 2010, warned Peres that he would only try again if he first saw increased commitment from both parties.
"Obama said he's willing to help, he's willing to push forward, but... he wants to see that a serious effort is being made and then he will add his weight," the official explained.
Obama and Peres also addressed the issue of Iran at their meetings. Peres noted that dealing with Iran is also a moral issue, because the Islamic Republic heads the anti-democratic camp in the region. The two presidents also agreed on continuing cooperation on missile defense against the Iranian threat and the necessity of maintaining economic sanctions on Tehran. .
According to the Israeli official, Peres told Obama that Israel is increasingly concerned about the flow of Russian strategic weaponry into the region and said that Israel wants to purchase an additional 20 F-35 fighter jets.
U.S. officials at the lunch raised the touchy issue of continued Israeli settlement building, but Peres didn't give any ground.
"Look, our policy hasn't changed," the official said, referring to Peres's position. "We have our differences with the administration but this has been our policy all along. We don't agree on everything."
Peres also asked Obama to consider clemency for convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, and he reminded the U.S. president that he has an open invitation to visit Israel whenever he wants.
Obama acknowledged both points but gave "no sort of reply one way or the other," the official said.
Republican proposals for cutting the international affairs budget would harm the U.S. ability to respond to the political changes and humanitarian crises throughout the Arab world, according to two top officials dealing with the issue.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Cairo on Tuesday, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. government official to visit the region since the tide of revolutions swept across the Arab world in January. She will also visit Tunisia and meet with leaders of the Libyan opposition. One senior official from State and one from USAID who just returned from the region are warning that now is the wrong time to slash funding for diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, and refugee assistance, as House Republicans are proposing.
"We have, around the world, ongoing humanitarian responses to protracted situations, situations that are not emergency but are protracted and require our engagement, and we have emergency situations, and we have accounts for both. And it is the future funding of both of those accounts that are so seriously imperiled by some of these proposals," said Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) Eric Schwartz at a Monday press conference.
The U.S. government has sent teams to the Tunisian and Egyptian borders of Libya to asses humanitarian needs and help coordinate the response. 140,000 migrant workers have streamed across the Libyan border with Tunisia, and about 110,000 people have headed east into Egypt, Schwartz said. The United States has also chartered flights to bring these migrants back to their homes, flying workers to third countries .
"We will do what is necessary," Schwartz said, explaining that $47 million has already been devoted to the effort. He said that, for now, State will come up with the money to support urgent needs, but the GOP spending plan would cut PRM's $2 billion budget in half for the rest of fiscal 2011. The legislation "would impact both these emergency accounts which have been put to use in this crisis as well as our regular accounts which also have been put to use in this crisis," Schwartz said.
On March 12, Schwartz co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post, in which he said that he was "deeply concerned by the prospect of U.S. humanitarian aid reductions of historic and devastating proportions."
On Capitol Hill, the negotiations about the remainder of the fiscal 2011 budget are a long way from over, and it is clear that Congress will have to pass yet another short-term extension when the current continuing resolution expires March 18. Negotiations over the fiscal 2012 budget have not yet begun.
In the meantime, several lawmakers are putting forth ideas for ways to speed some extra money to the region to support U.S. democracy promotion efforts.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) supports the creation of a "Middle East stability fund" that would appropriate money at the levels of the full fiscal 2011 request for Arab countries and Israel, in addition to the full year continuing resolution whenever it goes through.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) proposed an $80 million enterprise fund for Egypt and Tunisia last week, which would encourage economic development and foreign investment in those countries. His idea is supported by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT).
"These new enterprise funds will allow us to do what the people of Egypt and Tunisia are calling for - and that's to provide investment capital so their entrepreneurs and private businesses, so that their economies can stabilize, can prosper," said Kerry.
The U.S. intelligence community has been behind events throughout the Arab world for over a month and producing deficient work, the Senate's top leader on intelligence issues complained to the head of the CIA.
"Our intelligence, and I see it all, is way behind the times. It is inadequate. And this is a very serious problem," Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.
Feinstein criticized the U.S. government's intelligence products in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya, saying that the intelligence community has given her "nothing that we didn't read in the newspapers" since January.
"The only one where there was good intelligence was Tunisia," she said, "but really no intelligence on any of the others, whether it was Yemen, or Bahrain, or Egypt... nothing."
Feinstein said she recently raised her unhappiness over the intelligence community's work directly with CIA Director Leon Panetta, who promised to produce better information for lawmakers.
"It's going to be improved. Mr. Panetta is aware of this and is going to take action," she explained.
She attributed the shoddy work product to a lack of human intelligence assets on the ground in the Middle East as well as the intelligence community's failure to maximize the use of open source information, including social networks, which Feinstein said accounts for an increasing amount of raw intelligence.
"I'm not a big computer person but I just went up on one of these sites and all I had to do was look," Feinstein said.
Feinstein said that she has not spoken about the issue with the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Feinstein also joined the growing chorus of senior Democratic senators who oppose any type of military intervention in Libya, including arming rebel groups or imposing a no-fly zone.
"This is a civil war. It is not Qaddafi invading another country. I think [arming the rebels] is an act of war and particularly the no-fly zone is [an act of war]," she said.
The U.S. government shouldn't set a precedent for intervening in Arab civil wars, Feinstein said. She said that such a step could lead to more interventions by the U.S. military, which is already strained by the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Saudis -- Do you put a no fly zone up there if this happens there? Bahrain -- Do you put a no-fly zone up there? We've got our hands full," she said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) has repeatedly called on the administration to work with allies to set up a no-fly zone over Libya. But Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) is also against the idea for now.
"There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before that option can be exercised," Levin told The Cable. "Not only what is the mission, what are the risks, but also who are the supporters of it. If there is no support in the Arab and Muslim world or neighboring countries, what it could result in would be a very negative outcome."
Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), an Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee member and former secretary of the Navy, also said on Tuesday that armed intervention in Libya on behalf of the rebels was not wise at this time.
"We all know that military commitments, however small, are easily begun and in this region particularly very difficult to end," said Webb. "I am of the opinion that it's not a good idea to give weapons and military support to people who you don't know."
The calls are increasing in Washington for the Obama administration to take new, stronger measures to punish the Libyan government led by Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi for atrocities and to protect Libyan civilians.
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) implored Obama on in a press conference to establish a no-fly zone in Libya, abandon its recognition of the Qaddafi government, transfer recognition to a transitional government formed by the rebels as soon as possible, and provide the opposition with support, including weapons.
"The government of Libya, epitomized by Muammar Qaddafi is massacring some of his people. There is very little doubt about Mr. Qaddafi's commitment to remaining in power no matter how much blood has to be shed," McCain said on behalf of both senators at a Friday press conference in Jerusalem.
"When a government massacres its own people, it loses its legitimacy. So, we should no longer recognize the existing government of Libya."
Lieberman added that the no-fly zone should be organized by NATO and he compared the ongoing killing of civilians in Libya to the genocide perpetrated by Serbia during the 1990s that eventually resulted in a NATO bombing campaign.
"I think in that sense it is very important that we not just make statements about the massacre that is occurring in Libya but that we lead an international coalition to do something," Lieberman said. "What is happening in Libya today reminds me what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. We in the United States decided that we could not simply stand by and watch a government massacre its people."
Back in Washington, Vice President Joseph Biden lamented on Thursday that NATO intervention in the Balkans didn't come sooner, when it could have saved more lives.
"It's amazing how in the Balkans it took so long," Biden told an audience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. "First, we must recognize early indicators of potential atrocities and respond accordingly, rather than waiting until we are confronted by massacres like those in Rwanda or in Srebrenica."
Former State Department Policy Planning Chief Anne-Marie Slaughter also compared the violence in Libya to the Balkans and the 1994 Rwandan genocide in a Thursday tweet.
"The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters. In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted," Slaughter tweeted.
Also on Friday, a bipartisan group of senior mostly-Republican foreign policy experts penned an open letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to make good on his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, when he said, "Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later."
The experts asked Obama to call on NATO to urgently develop plans to establish an air and naval presence in Libya, freeze all Libyan government assets in the U.S. and Europe, consider halting Libyan oil imports, pledge to hold Qaddafi responsible for any atrocities, and speed humanitarian aid to the Libyan people.
"With violence spiraling to new heights, and with the apparent willingness of the Qaddafi regime to use all weapons at its disposal against the Libyan people, we may be on the threshold of a moral and humanitarian catastrophe," the experts wrote. "Inaction, or slow and inadequate measures, may not only fail to stop the slaughter in Libya but will cast doubt on the commitment of the United States and Europe to basic principles of human rights and freedoms."
The letter was signed by several senior GOP former officials, including Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, Eric Edelman, Eliot Cohen, Jamie Fly and Scott Carpenter, human rights activities David Kramer and Neil Hicks, and Clinton administration official John Shattuck.
"The United States and our European allies have a moral interest in both an end to the violence and an end to the murderous Libyan regime. There is no time for delay and indecisiveness," they wrote. "The people of Libya, the people of the Middle East, and the world require clear U.S. leadership in this time of opportunity and peril."
Full text of the letter after the jump:
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo was planning to spend $667,200 on a youth soccer mentorship program in Egypt, to be run through the Egyptian Ministry of Interior. However, it withdrew its funding request following the Interior Ministry's brutal crackdowns on Egyptian youth during the anti-regime protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak earlier this month.
The State Department's Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma sent out the initial congressional notification about the Egyptian soccer program on Jan. 25, the same day that the massive popular protests broke out in Egypt. The money was to come from the State Department's account for nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, demining, and related programs (NADR) from fiscal 2010 and was to be given to U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey. The program would have operated in conjunction with the Egyptian Ministry of Interior and the Egyptian police.
But on Tuesday, Verma sent a letter to Congress, obtained by The Cable, withdrawing the notification.
"Based on the events of the past week, questions have arisen about the appropriateness and feasibility of proceeding at this time with the proposed youth soccer mentorship program in Egypt," Verma wrote, also noting that embassy personnel were preoccupied now and could not oversee the program.
"Moreover, there are questions about the role of the Egyptian Ministry of Interior and the Egyptian Police in recent events. Before proceeding with a youth engagement activity involving the two organizations, additional time for the situation to settle is needed."
The State Department could resubmit the request for soccer program funding at a later date, Verma wrote.
For longtime critics of the State Department's relationship with the Egyptian government, the fact that a soccer program was being planned in conjunction with the Interior Ministry shows a lack of understanding of the body's relationship with the Egyptian population.
"You could forgive someone for thinking this congressional notification came straight from The Onion," said Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. "If it weren't so pathetic -- in a nutshell what's wrong with U.S. foreign aid -- it would be hysterical."
DOHA, Qatar — The State Department's top Middle East official, Jeffrey Feltman, said Thursday that he was personally "inspired" by the youth-led revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and that the uprisings roiling the Arab world showed "there's a fundamental shift in the relationship of how people in the region view their rulers."
Feltman, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, was in Qatar on one of several stops in the Persian Gulf, where the United States is seeking to reassure nervous allies even as it urges them to embrace meaningful political reform. He was a speaking at a town-hall meeting hosted by Northwestern University in Qatar and billed as a forum on media and Internet freedom in the Arab world.
His remarks in Doha come at a time of great upheaval in the Middle East, and most dramatically now in Libya, where anti-government protesters have seized huge swaths of the country and are vowing to march on the capital Tripoli to finish the job.
As Muammar al-Qaddafi again took to the airwaves to accuse the protesters of taking drugs and carrying out al Qaeda's agenda -- while forces loyal to the embattled Libyan leader reportedly continued their campaign of terror in and around Tripoli -- Feltman said it was "not clear that Qaddafi is listening to anybody."
"It's appalling what's happening now in Libya. It's really, really appalling," Feltman said with obvious emotion. But, he noted, echoing remarks made by President Barack Obama on Wednesday evening, that the United States had "a responsibility to our own citizens" in Libya that took immediate precedence over "a general obligation to protect Libyan citizens."
Asked whether the United States could do more in Libya to prevent civilian deaths, he said, "I don't have any answers for you right now, what the right approach is."
As protests rage in Bahrain and Libya, the U.S. government's stance toward democracy in the Arab world is evolving, even in Congress. On Wednesday, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said that the United States must abandon its decades-old habit of supporting autocrats.
"The old days of ‘as long as we can make a positive relationship with the autocrat who's running the place, then we are friends with the country' are dead and gone," Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) told a group of reporters over breakfast on Wednesday.
"We have to be much more interested in trying to get the actual populations in those countries to be supportive of us," Smith said. "What we have to start thinking about in the foreign policy establishment is what shifts in our foreign policy do we need to make to target the populations."
Smith said that over the last decades, the U.S. policy of supporting regimes that abused power turned many Arabs against the United States and bolstered often violent opposition movements, some of which could now be poised to take power.
"It was a long term bad strategy... We were winning the battle but losing the war," Smith said. "There's a reason we opted in the past for the ‘Let's just make friends with the autocrat' approach. It's much easier."
But Smith, who represents the district where the U.S. Army base of Fort Lewis is located, defended military aid to countries including Jordan, Pakistan, and Israel as useful tools of American influence.
Smith also said that military aid to Cairo must continue while the Egyptian military undertakes the process of reform. "Where Egypt is concerned, it's going to depend on what their government ultimately looks like," Smith said. "Right now, today? Yes."
Smith admitted the difficulty of supporting popular Arab movements while also defending U.S. interests, laying out several concerns he had about the largest and most organized Egyptian opposition group -- the Muslim Brotherhood.
"One of the things to understand about [the Muslim Brotherhood's approach in Egypt... their ultimate goals haven't changed," Smith said. "I don't think the people of Egypt want to trade one totalitarian group for another... we have a definite interest in making sure that doesn't happen."
Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), have not been shy about their desire to end all U.S. foreign aid. This week, the elder member of the Paul family is seeking a full House vote on an amendment that would cut $6 billion of U.S. aid to a host of Middle East countries.
Rep. Paul is trying to build support for an amendment to the fiscal 2011 funding bill that would end all foreign assistance to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Pakistan. The funding bill currently being debated by the House, called the continuing resolution (CR), is needed to keep the government running after March 4.
"Stop buying friends overseas, save $6 billion!" reads the headline of a Dear Colleague letter Paul sent to all House offices on Tuesday. In past years, amendments like Paul's, which is not supported by leadership, would not have received a vote because congressional leaders had limited or even prohibited amendments during spending debates. But this year, House Republican leadership decided to use an "open rule" for the CR, giving every member of Congress the right to bring an amendment and have it debated.
There are currently over 400 amendments pending to the bill, and yet somehow the House leadership wants to finish debate this week. Whether they can really do that remains unclear, but even if they succeed, the bill would go to the Senate and then perhaps back to the House once more with new changes from the Senate. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has said that another short-term temporary funding measure might be necessary to keep the government running while the legislative process continues.
Regardless, if Paul's amendment gets a vote, it would be the first time the entire House would vote on whether or not to give $6 billion to these foreign governments. The vote would come in the midst of the largest American fiscal crisis in a generation, which could increase the chance that it would attract significant support.
"Borrowing money from China -- or printing it out of thin air -- to hand out overseas in [an] attempt to purchase friends has been a failing foreign policy, as we see most recently in Egypt where there is not even a government in place!" Paul wrote in his Dear Colleague letter. "We should seek friendly relations and trade overseas, but we cannot justify lavish gifts to foreign leaders when American taxpayers are increasingly feeling the pain of our economic crisis."
Paul, along with his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), represent the libertarian wing of the Tea Party movement, which has been throwing its weight around Congress since the new session started in January. Like-minded members have also been pushing the House GOP leadership to make deeper cuts to the foreign assistance budget. For example, on Jan. 20, the 165-member Republican Study Committee put out a plan that would drastically defund the U.S. Agency for International Development.
While there is probably enough bipartisan support for aid to Israel to defeat Paul's amendment, the debate over continued funding for other Arab countries is more complex. Some GOP heavyweights, like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), have suggested scuttling all foreign aid that is not designated for staunch U.S. allies such as Israel. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has argued for restricting aid to the Egyptian government unless it excludes the Muslim Brotherhood from any representation in the new parliament.
Other leading Republicans, especially in the Senate, have voiced support for continuing U.S. assistance to Egypt and Jordan. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is working behind the scenes to craft an aid package to the CR that would fully fund the president's request for foreign aid to Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Aid to Pakistan, which totals over $1.5 billion each year, has strong support from Senate Foreign Relations Committee heads John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
Regardless, Paul's amendment represents the rising tide of opposition to foreign aid and the increased difficulty of defending such aid in Congress.
"We cannot afford to have ‘business as usual' when we are bankrupt," he wrote.
There's a raging debate on Capitol Hill surrounding huge cuts to foreign aid funding proposed in the House Republicans' latest spending bill. But several senators are looking to add a generous foreign aid package for Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and other Middle Eastern countries when the bill comes over from the House.
"A [continuing resolution] that had full year funding for the troops plus an Egypt, Israel, and Middle East stability package of full year funding would send the right signal from the United States," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told The Cable in an exclusive interview.
The current version of the continuing resolution, which is needed to keep the government running past March 4, is being debated in the House now. It proposes significant cuts in the State Department and foreign assistance budgets below what the president requested for fiscal 2011, which began last October.
Kirk said several senators on both sides of the aisle supported the new Middle East Stability funding package, which would fully fund foreign aid accounts for a host of countries in the region at the level requested by the president and pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.
"There's not a need to fund the full foreign assistance program but there is a need for Egypt, Israel, and Jordan related programs to receive full funding for fiscal 2011 right now. This is being discussed and I strongly support it," Kirk said.
Back in the House, there is plenty of support for funding Israel aid, which totals about $3 billion per year, but some Republicans are looking to restrict aid to other Middle East countries, such as Egypt. House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has argued that further funding should be withheld from Egypt unless they exclude Islamist groups such as the the Muslim Brotherhood, from participating in the new government.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable in an exclusive interview that new funding for Egypt was needed to bolster secular and moderate political groups that have been marginalized over the past decades under the old Egyptian regime.
Berman supports increased funding for U.S.-based organizations that promote civil society in Egypt, such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
"We need to educate [moderate Egyptian political groups] on how to communicate, how to build a political party, how to organize. There's a way to do that without choosing who you want but giving the secular parties some skills and some resources to get going," Berman said.
Berman said that increased aid to Egypt now should not be held up due to concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood, which he argued is not going to be particularly interested in NDI or IRI programs anyway.
"America can't decide who participates, we shouldn't, and to the extent we try to too clumsily, we are going to hurt the cause we all share," Berman said. "Mubarak is the one who drew the line, ‘it's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood.' Our job is to create an alternative."
If groups have a chance to organize, the vast majority of the Egyptian population will not be receptive to the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda, Berman said. That doesn't mean, however, that he takes the threat posed by Islamist groups in Egypt lightly."Am I concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood? You betcha," he said.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in an exclusive interview with The Cable, credited the Bush administration's Freedom Agenda with setting the stage for the current wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world. But he also warned that Egypt and the other countries in the region could easily slip into the hands of repressive groups that have been lying in wait.
"That region does not have a long proud history of free political institutions, free economic institutions, and democracy," Rumsfeld said. "What President Bush has done in Iraq and Afghanistan is to give the people in those countries a chance to have freer political systems and freer economic systems. There's no question that the example is helpful in the region."
But now, several years later, nominally pro-Western movements throughout the Middle East have been defeated by repressive and authoritarian organizations -- a situation that could very well repeat itself in Egypt with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Rumsfeld said, because those groups tend to be better organized and more vicious.
"So while what's happening is hopeful, all of us have to be realistic and hope the process is one, that unlike Lebanon, unlike Gaza, and unlike Iran, does not end up bringing people's hopes up and then dashed with a repressive regime," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld criticized the Obama administration's mixed messaging during the Egypt crisis, specifically referencing the State Department's decision to send Frank Wisner as an unofficial envoy to Cairo. The Obama administration was subsequently forced to distance itself from Wisner when he publicly called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to stay in power only days later.
"I think it's unfortunate that they appointed Frank Wisner and then within a matter of hours got cross waves between the Department of State, the White House, and their special envoy. Clearly that weakens our voice to have mixed signals," Rumsfeld said.
Regarding the role of the Egyptian military, which now has effective control of the government in Cairo, Rumsfeld said that it may or may not turn out to be a responsible steward of power and the transition to free and fair elections.
"If one had to put some money down, you would want odds, but I would take the odds favoring that [the Egyptian military] would behave in a positive and constructive way," Rumsfeld said. "One has to say that managing this process is not going to be easy."
Rumsfeld said that he believes the tidal wave of change sweeping the Arab world presents the United States with an opportunity to increase its support for the opposition movement in Iran.
"I hope there are a variety of things taking place in our government, in some instances appropriately public but in some instances private ... and that the examples that we are seeing elsewhere in the region, I would hope we would encourage in Iran," he said.
Rumsfeld has over 40 years of experience dealing with Egypt and the Arab world. In his new memoir Known and Unknown, he recounts the first time he met then Vice President Mubarak, in June 1975. At the time, Rumsfeld was serving as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford. "On a personal level, I found him animated, even ebullient," Rumsfeld wrote.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Here is the full text of President Obama's Friday remarks on the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak:
There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. The people of Egypt have spoken. Their voices have been heard. And Egypt will never be the same. By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people's hunger for change. but this is not the end of Egypt's transition. It's a beginning. I'm sure there will be difficult days ahead and many questions remain unanswered. But I am confident that the people of Egypt can find the answers, and do so peacefully, constructively, and in the spirit of unity that has defined these last few weeks, for Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.
The military has served patriotically and responsibly as a caretaker to the state and will now have to ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people. That means protecting the rights of Egypt's citizens, lifting the emergency law, revising the constitution and other laws to make this change irreversible, and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free. Above all this transition must bring all of Egypt's voices to the table for the spirit of peaceful protest and perseverence that the Egyptian people have shown can serve as a powerful wind at the back of this change. The United States will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt. We stand ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary and asked for to pursue a credible transition to a democracy.
I'm also confident that the same ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that the young people of Egypt have shown in recent days can be harnessed to create new opportunity, jobs and businesses that allow the extraordinary potential of this generation to take flight. I know that a democratic Egypt can advance its role of responsible leadership not only in the region but around the world.
Egypt has played a pivotal role in human history for over 6,000 years. But over the last few weeks the wheel of history turned at a blinding pace as the Egyptian people demanded their universal rights. We saw mothers and fathers carrying their children on their shoulders to show them what true freedom might look like. We saw young Egyptians say, for the first time in my life I really count. My voice is heard. Even though I'm only one person, this is the way real democracy works. We saw protestors chant... 'We are peaceful, again and again.'
We saw a military that would not fire bullets at the people they were sworn
to protect. And we saw doctors and nurses rushing into the streets to care for
the wound. Volunteers checking protestors to ensure that they were unarmed. We
saw people of faith praying together and chanting Muslims, Christians, we are
one. And though we know the strains of faith divide too many in this world and
no single event will close that chasm immediately, these scenes show us that we
need not be defined by our differences. We can be defined by the common
humanity that we share.
And, above all, we saw a new generation emerge, a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears. A government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations. One Egyptian put it simply -- most people have discovered in the last few days that they are worth something, and this cannot be taken away from them anymore. Ever.
This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied. Egyptians have inspired us, and they've done so by putting the eye to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt it was the moral force of nonviolence, not terrorism, not mindless killing, but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more. And while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can't help but hear the echoes of history, echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path justice. As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, there's something in the soul that cries out for freedom.
Those were the cries that came from Tahrir square and the entire world has taken note. Today belongs to the people of Egypt, and the American people are moved by these scenes in Cairo and across Egypt because of who we are as a people and the kind of world that we want our children to grow up in. The word ‘Tahrir' means liberation. It's a word that speaks to that something in our souls that cries out for freedom. And forever more it will remind us of the Egyptian people, of what they did, of the things that they stood for, and how they changed their country and in doing so changed the world. Thank you.
The Obama administration was caught by surprise on Thursday night when President Hosni Mubarak spoke to the Egyptian people and initially declined to step down as leader of the country. Following the speech, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen quickly phoned their counterparts in the Egyptian military.
Today, the military assumed control of the Egyptian government and Vice President Omar Suleiman announced in a recorded statement that Mubarak had stepped down from the presidency. "Secretary Gates spoke with [Defense Minister] Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi again last night," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell confirmed to The Cable.
"It was his fifth phone conversation with the Egyptian defense minister since the situation in Egypt began."
Captain John Kirby, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs, confirmed to The Cable that Mullen called Egyptian Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan following the Mubarak speech. Mullen and Anan have spoken four times since Jan. 25, and the last call before Thursday night was on Saturday, Feb. 5, Kirby said.
Both Morrell and Kirby declined to give details on the substance of the calls.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday morning that President Barack Obama did not call Mubarak after the speech. The last reported call between Vice President Joseph Biden and Suleiman was Feb. 8, when Biden pressed Suleiman to expand his dialogue with opposition groups.
The Gates and Mullen phone calls are emblematic of the sustained but quiet engagement with their military counterparts that the Pentagon has been undertaking throughout the crisis. That effort has been especially important in recent days, as the military's role has increased and its allegiances have come under closer scrutiny.
The Pentagon even sent out a quiet request to scores of U.S. military officers last week, asking them to contact any Egyptian military members they might know through past associations at American military colleges, the Washington Post reported.
The officers weren't told to deliver any specific messages. The outreach has been rather about collecting information from the Egyptian military and making sure that the military-to-military relationship remained intact, a Pentagon official said, adding that similar outreach has occurred between the Pentagon and its interlocutors in other countries, including Israel.
The White House and the State Department have disagreed on how much pressure to place on Mubarak and Suleiman. The Pentagon has sided mostly with State, arguing for more support of existing Egyptian institutions of power, especially the military. Some observers see the Pentagon as inclined to favor supporting the Egyptian military due its own interests and natural institutional biases.
"The Pentagon is simply so used to letting the Egyptian military have what they want," said one former U.S. official who dealt with the Pentagon on Egypt. "The Pentagon has wanted to keep their involvement at a strictly military-to-military level. So they are reluctant to be part of diplomacy at the top level, but insistent in being engaged in their own diplomacy for their own interest."
Regardless, the direct intervention of top Pentagon and U.S. military officials at key times throughout the crisis may have influenced the Egyptian military's behavior at key junctures, such as when the Egyptian military was implicated in the crackdown of journalists and human rights activists last weekend. Pentagon officials believe their outreach contributed to the relative restraint of the Egyptian Army.
It's unclear whether Gates and Mullen's telephone diplomacy last night actually influenced the events that unfolded only hours later. But the Pentagon's relationships with the Egyptian military are now among the most crucial avenues of communication and influence for U.S. policy toward Egypt going forward.
President Obama's remarks on Egypt have been pushed back to 3 p.m. Meanwhile, here are some of the reactions pouring in from officials, lawmakers, and experts on today's resignation of (former) Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Vice President Joseph Biden:
This is a pivotal moment, it's a pivotal moment not only in the Mideast but in history.… All has changed in the last 15 years internationally and all continues to change.… The future depends on our ability to adequately understand and engage the truths of our time.
We have said from the beginning, that future of Egypt will be determined by Egyptian people.… [E]ven in this contentious political climate in which we work, on this issue the United States has largely spoken with one voice.… This unity has been important, and it will be even more important in these delicate and fateful days ahead.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA):
This is an extraordinary moment for Egypt. Courageous and peaceful demands for freedom and opportunity have now won the Egyptian people a chance at a new beginning. Now the hard work intensifies to prepare for free and fair elections that will allow the people to choose a broadly representative and responsive government.
Egypt's army and transitional leaders must heed the call to lift the emergency law and clarify a timetable to establish a proper foundation for credible elections. The United States must help Egyptians turn this democratic moment into a process that builds a government responsive to economic needs as well as demands for freedom. What happens next will have repercussions far beyond Egypt's borders. We know from recent experience in Gaza that this requires not just elections, but hard work to build a government that is transparent, accountable, and broadly representative.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL):
Now that the immediate demands of the Egyptian people have been met, steps must be taken for the prompt commencement of a calm and orderly transition process towards freedom and democracy in Egypt. This transition must include constitutional and administrative reforms, starting with the repeal of the emergency laws. These are necessary for legitimate, democratic, internationally recognized elections to take place with peaceful, responsible actors who will not only advance the aspirations of the Egyptian people, but will continue to enforce Egypt's international obligations.
The Egyptian military can continue to play a constructive role in providing for security and stability during this transformational period. The U.S. and our allies must focus our efforts on helping to create the necessary conditions for such a transition to take place. We must also urge the unequivocal rejection of any involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists who may seek to exploit and hijack these events to gain power, oppress the Egyptian people, and do great harm to Egypt's relationship with the United States, Israel, and other free nations.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ):
While this is a welcomed event, the Egyptian people are clearly saying that President Mubarak's resignation should be the beginning, not the end, of their country's transition to democracy. I completely agree. For the Egyptian people to achieve the legitimate and enduring democratic change they seek, representatives from Egypt's pro-democracy parties and movements must be included in the transition government. In advance of elections later this year, Egyptians must be free to exercise their universal rights peacefully - to speak and express themselves without interference, including over the internet; to organize independent political parties; to register candidates of their choosing for office; and to participate in elections that are free and fair by international standards.
In the days ahead, the Egyptian military will continue to have a critical role in maintaining order and stability while allowing their fellow Egyptians to exercise their universal rights in peace. The Egyptian people are demanding a meaningful and irreversible transition to democracy, and I urge the Egyptian military to faithfully support and secure the coming process of political change in Egypt.
Former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI):
As the world watches events unfold in Egypt, it only highlights the need to reform how the United States gathers information around the world, so that we can anticipate events rather than simply respond to them. This reform includes using all the tools at our disposal, integrating clandestine collection of intelligence with the means by which our government gathers information openly. Last year, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to create an independent commission to examine long-standing weaknesses in our intelligence capabilities and make recommendations for reform. It is now time that the commission be funded, its membership constituted, and its critical work begun.
Center for American Progress' Brian Katulis:
Mubarak leaving office is only the first step in Egypt's political transition, and will not resolve Egypt's ongoing political crisis. It remains unclear whether the Egyptian people will accept Vice President Suleiman as an interim leader, and the National Assembly, Egypt's legislature, does not reflect the free vote of the Egyptian people. Constitutional reforms are necessary to open up the political system to all political parties and groups willing to play by the rules of democracy. In short, what Egypt needs is a full reboot of its political system. The Obama administration should remain focused on the constructive long-term goal of a peaceful and orderly transition to a free and democratic Egypt, and should continue to support steps - such as a new round of free and fair parliamentary elections - toward ensuring that outcome.
Former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller:
If we're lucky this time around, we'll avoid the who-lost-Egypt debate. Hosni Mubarak's decision to step down has pre-empted a catastrophic crisis for Egypt and for American interests. We may not be adept at manipulating Middle Eastern politics; but we're sure experts at beating ourselves up.
Commentators and analysts have argued forcefully that Barack Obama's administration failed to anticipate the current crisis, blew an opportunity by failing to push Mubarak to make significant reforms during the early days of the upheaval, and risked being on the wrong side of history by not being assertive in trying to force Mubarak's removal. But the administration was smart to keep its distance from this crisis.
The announcement by Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman that Hosni Mubarak has stepped down as president came just as President Obama was meeting with senior national security team members in the White House.
"The President was informed of President Mubarak's decision to step down during a meeting in the Oval Office. He then watched TV coverage of the scene in Cairo for several minutes in the outer Oval," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement to reporters.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg were in attendance at the White House meeting. The daily State Department press briefing is on hold.
Obama will make an on-camera statement on the situation in Egypt later today around 1:30 p.m.
See a live stream of the celebration scene on Tahrir Square here.
The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient. Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy, and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world. The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity.
As we have said from the beginning of this unrest, the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people. But the United States has also been clear that we stand for a set of core principles. We believe that the universal rights of the Egyptian people must be respected, and their aspirations must be met. We believe that this transition must immediately demonstrate irreversible political change, and a negotiated path to democracy. To that end, we believe that the emergency law should be lifted. We believe that meaningful negotiations with the broad opposition and Egyptian civil society should address the key questions confronting Egypt's future: protecting the fundamental rights of all citizens; revising the Constitution and other laws to demonstrate irreversible change; and jointly developing a clear roadmap to elections that are free and fair.
We therefore urge the Egyptian government to move swiftly to explain the changes that have been made, and to spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step by step process that will lead to democracy and the representative government that the Egyptian people seek. Going forward, it will be essential that the universal rights of the Egyptian people be respected. There must be restraint by all parties. Violence must be forsaken. It is imperative that the government not respond to the aspirations of their people with repression or brutality. The voices of the Egyptian people must be heard.
The Egyptian people have made it clear that there is no going back to the way things were: Egypt has changed, and its future is in the hands of the people. Those who have exercised their right to peaceful assembly represent the greatness of the Egyptian people, and are broadly representative of Egyptian society. We have seen young and old, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian join together, and earn the respect of the world through their non-violent calls for change. In that effort, young people have been at the forefront, and a new generation has emerged. They have made it clear that Egypt must reflect their hopes, fulfill their highest aspirations, and tap their boundless potential. In these difficult times, I know that the Egyptian people will persevere, and they must know that they will continue to have a friend in the United States of America.
The State Department confirmed on Thursday that Khairy Ramadan Aly, an Egyptian national who worked as a carpenter at the U.S. embassy in Cairo for 18 years, is dead. He went missing amid the protests on Jan. 28.
"On behalf of all the men and women of the State Department and USAID, I offer our condolences to the friends and loved ones of Khairy Ramadan Aly, a member of our Embassy family in Cairo," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement. "Throughout this period, many Egyptian employees of the U.S. Mission have continued to work alongside their American colleagues in Cairo and Alexandria. The United States is grateful for their contributions, commitment and sacrifice during this difficult time."
Aly went to Tahrir Square in search for his son, who had gone into the square to protest and then went missing. Aly was apparently shot three times, although it's unclear when, in what could have been a random act of violence, according to the Associated Press. His son eventually returned home of his own accord.
Clinton placed the responsibility on the Egyptian government to respect and protect the rights and safety of the protesters on the streets.
"Abuses committed against those seeking to exercise basic freedoms must stop," she said. "There is a clear responsibility by the Egyptian government, including the armed forces, to protect those threatened and to hold accountable those responsible for using violence and intimidation that threatens the aspirations of the Egyptian people."
The Obama administration has gone silent following the latest speech by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in which he seemed to cede some powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman but refused to step down from office.
"We don't have any immediate comment," National Security Spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable. Follow-up requests for information about how the White House was processing the latest news from Cairo went unreturned. The State Department cancelled its daily press briefing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton canceled two scheduled interviews, and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley's latest tweet on the matter was several hours ago.
"The #Egyptian people will keep coming to #TahrirSquare. #Democracy means that peaceful protesters are both tolerated and protected," Crowley tweeted at about 9 a.m., when news reports were predicting Mubarak would resign.
The administration may be seeking to stem the flood of confusion following a stream of statements on Egypt from senior officials in various testimonies to Congress Thursday morning. CIA Director Leon Panetta was forced to clarify his statement earlier today when he said, "I have heard there's a strong likelihood Mubarak will step down this evening," explaining that his comment was based on news reports, not intelligence data.
At the same hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stunned lawmakers when he declared that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was "largely secular."
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg was able to stay on message, refusing to comment on the ever evolving situation on the ground and repeating the administration's line that change must come -- and be based on -- the core principles of non-violence, respect for universal rights, and real political reform.
But there's no doubt that the White House's delicate balancing act, whereby they have expressed support for the transitional process led by Suleiman while still pressing him for greater openness in that process, has now been overtaken by events. Exactly what the new message will be is what the administration is working on right now.
Mubarak and his ministers have been critical of the statements coming out of the Obama administration and in his speech Mubarak defiantly stated, "I have never ever been accepting any sort of foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs."
In an interview Wednesday with PBS News Hour, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that U.S. statements calling for faster reform were not helpful, "because when you speak about prompt, immediate, now, as if you are imposing on a great country like Egypt, a great friend that have always maintained the best of relationship with the United States, you are imposing your will on him."
Speaking earlier on Thursday in Michigan at a scheduled event, President Barack Obama stayed away from making news on the crisis in Egypt and cautioned that the events in Cairo were still very much up in the air.
"We are following today's events in Egypt very closely and we'll have more to say as this plays out," the president said. "But what is absolutely clear is that we are witnessing history unfold. It's a moment of transformation that's taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change."
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is only one of the many people in Washington who are scratching their heads today after the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was mostly a "secular" group.
"The term ‘Muslim Brotherhood' is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam," Clapper told the first ever hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence under new chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI).
Clapper's public affairs chief Jamie Smith "clarified" the remarks, telling ABC that Clapper really meant to say that "in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood makes efforts to work through a political system that has been, under Mubarak's rule, one that is largely secular in its orientation - he is well aware that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a secular organization."
But the gaffe was enough to invoke the ire of many in Congress, who are warning about the risks of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power. Kirk, who was a Naval intelligence officer, issued a statement criticizing Clapper Thursday afternoon.
"I am concerned that the DNI's assessment does not agree with recent public statements by senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood nor does it agree with the organization's publicly stated goals," Kirk's statement read. "As the world watches these historic events unfolding in Egypt, the United States should support an orderly transition to democracy that prevents the radical Muslim Brotherhood from grabbing power."
The debate over the real identity and role of the Brotherhood is just starting in Congress, and was at the top of lawmakers' concerns at Wednesday's hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Now the White House is reportedly making matters worse by apparently re-examining its position on dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but also stating that a new Egyptian government should include a whole host of important nonsecular actors," Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said at the hearing. "The Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with driving these protests, and they and other extremists must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt."
As reports streamed out of Cairo that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may cede power to the Egyptian military this evening, several senior administration officials happened to be testifying on Capitol Hill and were questioned directly about the reports.
"Like you I have heard there's a strong likelihood Mubarak will step down this evening," CIA Director Leon Panetta told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in its first hearing under new chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI). A CIA spokesman quickly clarified that Panetta was not independently confirming this fact.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is holding its second hearing under new chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), refused to comment on the latest reports regarding Mubarak. His opening statement before the committee reiterated the administration's support for a gradual transition in Egypt -- an idea that may soon be overtaken by events.
"Changes must come [in Egypt], but we must be mindful that transitions can lead to chaos, or forms of intolerance, or backsliding into authoritarianism," Steinberg said. "We are urging Egypt's government and opposition to engage in serious and inclusive negotiations to arrive at a timetable, game plan, and path to constitutional and political reform. And as they do, we will support principles, processes, and institutions, not personalities."
Ros-Lehtinen was scathing in her criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the crisis, arguing that it has not been supportive enough of the protesters, that there was no contingency planning done by the NSC to prepare for Mubarak's departure, and that the administration's policy over the last two weeks has been constantly changing and unclear.
Steinberg acknowledged the difficulty of establishing and then communicating a clear policy while the events on the ground continued to unfold.
"What is critical as we see this unfolding dynamic is that we remain in our principles, as well as the values and interests that we bring forward, while remaining nimble to adapt to changing circumstances," he said. "It's a little bit like having a good game plan but also knowing when to call an audible."
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy was originally scheduled to testify at the hearing, but was removed from the list yesterday.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground in Cairo
remains fluid. Egypt's
armed forces said on Thursday they have started taking
"necessary measures to protect the nation" and "support the
legitimate demands of the people."
Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, voiced the concerns of many in Congress about the role of the Egyptian military and its intentions regarding democracy and transparency.
"Given the military's influence over the regime - a regime that was born in the military, and whose entire leadership is composed of military men -- the democratic transition will happen if, and only if, the military does play a constructive role," he said.
The White House and the State Department have been sending out different messages over the past few days regarding the U.S. position on Egypt. The seeming disparity between the focus and tone of remarks by officials from each part of the government has the Washington community wondering if there's a rift between Pennsylvania Avenue and Foggy Bottom and who's really in charge.
Internal disagreements on how closely to align the United States with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman and his self-interested reform process emerged into public view last weekend, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Munich Security Conference that the U.S. is calling on the international community to support the process initiated by Suleiman. Clinton also had to distance herself from the comments of the State Department's chosen "envoy" Frank Wisner, who called for Mubarak to stay in power when he spoke at the conference in Munich.
Then, three days later, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke with Suleiman and gave him a list of further steps the U.S. wants him to take to open up the process, clearly expressing the official administration position that Suleiman's process is not acceptable in its current form.
On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, the NSC's Ben Rhodes said that the White House and the State Department have been "very closely aligned" and said that the difference between what Clinton said in Munich and what Biden told Suleiman three days later was a reflection of the changing circumstances on the ground.
"[Clinton] was just stating [in Munich] the matter of fact that Vice President Suleiman is the person conducting these negotiations for the government... Our response on Monday and Tuesday was in reaction to [Suleiman's] statements and it was to say that those statements alone were insufficient because they didn't constitute concrete action," Rhodes said. "I think it's entirely consistent to again state support for a process of negotiation... but to then hold the government accountable in terms of identifying the kinds of steps that we believe need to take place and that the Egyptian people are calling for."
Clinton's deputy chief of staff and new director for policy planning, Jake Sullivan, argued that the White House and the State Department have been aligned on the three core principles the U.S. government has been advocating for throughout the crisis: non-violence, respect for universal rights, and the need for political change.
"The theory of the case has remained consistent...and it's something on which the Secretary, the president and all of the other national security team members have been aligned on. And that's been true in the true public messaging. It's been true in the private messaging as well, " Sullivan said. "The situation is changing day by day even as we maintain the same basic core to our approach."
Experts close to the administration agreed with that to some degree, but said that mixed messaging from State and the White House was muddying communication of those core principles. The biases are based in institutional cultures, they said, and the gaps between the two camps are real.
"You had a similar dynamic in the later years of the Bush administration. There was President Bush and [NSC senior director] Elliott Abrams at the White House still trying to push the freedom agenda and Condoleezza Rice at the State Department very much trying to play it down," said Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The messages out of the administration have been extremely confusing and I think they realize that."
Abrams told The Cable that there are probably divisions in both places. "Where the State Department came out of its internal debate is in one place, where the White House has come out is in a different place," he said. "In the end it's about winning the hearts and minds, not of the Egyptian people, but of Obama, Biden, Clinton and Gates."
Deeper down in the administration, several official are playing influential roles in how the policy is being formed on each side. On the White House side, NSC Director Dan Shapiro, NSC Senior Director Samantha Power, and Rhodes have been leading the White House's outreach with the foreign policy expert community and held their latest meeting with experts on Tuesday.
Attendees reportedly included Dunne, Abrams, WINEP's Scott Carpenter, New America's Steve Clemons, CSIS's Jon Alterman, USIP's Dan Brumberg, Johns Hopkins' Fouad Ajami, and Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski.
Inside the State Department, Clinton is being advised on Egypt by several officials who have deep experience with Egypt, including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, who had suggested Wisner be sent to Cairo to deal with Mubarak, and Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, among others.
"The people whispering in her ears are people like Bill Burns, who is preoccupied with most often trying to save us from ourselves," Carpenter told The Cable. "Burns is legitimately concerned with how this all unfolds, but his interest is in preserving as much of the status quo with the current government of Egypt as possible. Meanwhile, the White House is saying that it's in our interest to build a new relationship because if we don't it's going to lead to something worse when the next government comes. So that leads them to conclude that they have to save State from themselves."
Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon, is increasingly seen as someone who understands the wider risks to U.S. foreign policy of being tougher on Suleiman and President Hosni Mubarak but is nevertheless looking for creative ways to square that circle.
"Some people on the inside say ‘Thank God for Feltman,'" because he's trying to prepare State for a changed relationship with Egypt after Mubarak leaves and trying to look over the horizon, Carpenter said.
On the specific policy toward Egypt, the difference between the current thinking at the White House as opposed to at the State Department surrounds exactly how much leeway Suleiman should have in setting up the committees that will negotiate and then oversee the political reform process leading up the elections.
On his blog the Washington Note, Clemons wrote that a senior White House official told him they want to see the emerging transitional process look like a "potluck dinner," where everyone brings their own ideas and has real power off the bat, rather than a hosted "dinner party" where Suleiman decides the guest list, the agenda, and thereby the results.
"The State Department is advocating a hosted dinner, where the power still resides with the incumbents," Clemons told The Cable. "That's not good enough for the White House."
Today's first hearing of the Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee was dominated by the question of how much the United States should fear the empowerment of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and what leverage should be used against the Egyptian military to get them to behave in accordance with U.S. interests.
Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) opened the hearing with a broad criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the crisis in Egypt, which she said is now tilting too far in support of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and is failing to counteract the threat posed by the rise of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Instead of being proactive, we have been obsessed with maintaining short-term, personality-based stability -- stability that was never really all that stable, as the events of the recent week demonstrate," she said.
"Now the White House is reportedly making matters worse by apparently re-examining its position on dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but also stating that a new Egyptian government should include a whole host of important nonsecular actors. The Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with driving these protests, and they and other extremists must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt."
Ros-Lehtinen repeated her argument that the United States should try to impose strict criteria on the process to ensure only "responsible actors" can participate in Egyptian governance, which she defined as those who renounce violent extremism and pledge to uphold Egypt's international commitments, including its peace treaty with Israel.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic counterpart, didn't have any nice things to say about the Muslim Brotherhood either.
"Like many I am skeptical about the Muslim Brotherhood's commitment to democracy. The Brotherhood wants Egypt to be governed by religious law rather than man-made law, a problematic position for a democrat. It has a bloody history," he said. "Even in the best-case scenario where the Brotherhood proves itself fully committed to democracy, there is every reason to believe it will try to influence the Egyptian government in ways that undermine U.S. interests and that will make Egypt a regressive, less-tolerant place."
Prior to the start of the hearing, Berman formally announced the names of the new ranking Democrats on the various subcommittees, including Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) on the Middle East subcommittee. Ackerman offered the most scathing criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the Egypt crisis at the hearing.
"In Egypt I fear that we are snatching failure from the jaws of success," he said. "The Obama administration now appears to be wavering about whether America really backs the demands of the Egyptian people or just wants to return to stability, which is a facade."
Ackerman turned the hearing into a discussion of the Egyptian military's role and the trustworthiness of Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former head of Mubarak's national intelligence agency. Ackerman criticized what he sees as a gap between the administration's rhetoric and its policy, and called on the White House to suspend military aid to Egypt now.
"The people yearn to be free. We must plant ourselves firmly on their side," he said. "We need to suspend our aid to Egypt. We simply cannot afford to be seen in Egypt as being a bankroll to oppression."
For his part, Berman disagreed with Ackerman and said that the United States should continue to use aid as leverage against the military, in order to pressure Suleiman and others to act in ways that support U.S. interests and values.
The foreign-policy experts that appeared before the committee largely agreed that military aid should be continued for the time being, but not if the Egyptian military proves to be impeding rather than advancing the course of reform.
"The Army may not have made up its mind yet. Now is the time to signal to them this aid is conditional," said former National Security Council official Elliott Abrams.
"The United State doesn't have so many levers," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Why would we throw away this arrow before it's absolutely apparent that the Egyptian Army has made a choice to suppress and refuse change? That seems to be unwise."
The experts disagreed on how the United States should handle the Muslim Brotherhood. Abrams said that "conditions that forbid religious parties are actually quite useful." Satloff urged a middle-of-the-road approach.
"Don't exaggerate [the danger of the Brotherhood], and also don't be naive," he said.
Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, argued that there are plenty of other secular political organizations in Egypt for the United States to work with besides the Muslim Brotherhood.
"We have to stop presenting ourselves with the choice that Mubarak gave us. There are groups in the middle," he said.
But Ackerman was skeptical that those groups were ready to take on a leadership role after decades of suppression. "If you over-pesticide your garden, you only get the weeds that survive," he said.
The other ranking Democrats on the committee announced today were Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) on the subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade; Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) on the subcommittee on oversight and investigations; Donald Payne (D-N.J.) on the subcommittee on Africa, global health, and human rights; Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) on the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific; Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) on the subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia; and Elliott Engel (D-N.Y.) on the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
Berman also announced a plan to introduce the "Hezbollah anti-terrorism act of 2011," which would limit U.S. foreign assistance to Lebanon until President Obama certifies that none of the funds will go to Hezbollah-controlled agencies and that the Lebanese government is dismantling Hezbollah's military infrastructure.
Uber-diplomat Frank Wisner won't be making any public remarks on the crisis in Egypt anytime soon; the Obama administration has directed him to steer clear of the press following his command performance in Munich, where he went off the reservation of the Obama administration's policy and forced the administration to distance itself from him and his remarks.
Wisner is back in New York at his day job at Patton Boggs, the lobbying law firm where he has worked since February 2009. He had a busy week, which began Jan. 31 with being dispatched by the Obama administration to deliver a direct message to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He reportedly delivered Obama's tough message that Mubarak must start the transition of power "now." The week ended with him telling the entire Munich Security Conference, which included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the audience, that Mubarak must stay in power to oversee changes in government.
"I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical -- it's his chance to write his own legacy," Wisner told the conference.
The remarks were so far off of the administration's message, which at this moment is that it's not the U.S. government's place to weigh in on Mubarak's future, that Clinton was forced to clarify on the plane ride home that Wisner was a private citizen and in no way spoke on behalf of the U.S. government.
But was the State Department even aware of what Wisner was going to say in Munich? "He did not give us a heads-up," a State Department official told The Cable.
Wisner was suggested for the "envoy" assignment to talk with Mubarak by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, two administration officials confirmed. Burns is the highest-ranking Foreign Service officer at State and has known Wisner for decades.
Inside the administration's policy process on Egypt, Burns is a key player, having been U.S. ambassador to Jordan and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. He wrote a book called Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, published in 1985, just before Wisner was named ambassador to Cairo.
But Wisner's embrace of Mubarak goes even further than Burns's position. "The implication that Bill agrees with [Wisner's] public statements since [Wisner's trip to Cairo] … is just plain wrong," an administration official told The Cable.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Monday that the administration knew about Wisner's work for the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which does business in Egypt, and that his long relationship with Mubarak was an asset, not a detraction.
"We're aware of his employer.… And we felt that he was uniquely positioned to have the kind of conversation that we felt needed to be done in Egypt," Crowley said.
A spokesman for Patton Boggs told the New York Times that Patton Boggs was not doing significant work on behalf of the Egyptian government and that Wisner "has no involvement and has not had any involvement in Egyptian business while at the firm."
The White House on Monday argued that Wisner dutifully completed his assigned task in Cairo, which was "to deliver a specific, one-time message to President Mubarak," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
"He is not and was not a U.S. envoy. He was not sent to negotiate. He is an individual who has a long history with President Mubarak and thus could deliver a clear message. He spoke to President Mubarak once, reported on his conversation, and then came home," Vietor said.
Nevertheless, don't expect the Obama administration to send any more one-off, high-level envoys anytime soon.
"We are completely confident in our ability to communicate directly with the government of Egypt at the White House, State Department, Pentagon and through our embassy," Vietor said.
CORRECTED: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Patton Boggs was part of the PLM Group, a lobbying entity comprising firms led by Tony Podesta, Bob Livingston, and Toby Moffet. Patton Boggs is not part of the PLM group, which has lobbied extensively on behalf of the Egyptian government.
The State Department now acknowledges that "elements" of the Egyptian military have taken part in the violent crackdown on journalists and activists in Cairo over the past few days, calling into question the positive influence and neutrality of the military, which the Obama administration praised last week.
Human rights activists in Washington and Cairo reported last week uniformed Egyptian military personnel were directly involved in the arrest, detention, and interrogation of human rights activists in Egypt, including the raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which included the arrest of Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams. In a gripping first-hand account on Monday, Williams explained the extensive role of Egyptian military personnel in his incarceration.
"The initial impression was that the military sided with the demonstrators yet provided order amid the chaos, which is why I was surprised to see the soldier on the chair, harassing the human rights workers about a ‘suspicious meeting' with foreigners bent on ‘ruining our country,' Williams wrote on Monday at The Daily Beast. "There was no doubt that the army was in charge of the raid. At one point, a major general showed up at the Hisham Mubarak center and other officers worked hand in glove with a uniformed policeman, plainclothes state security agents and assorted abusive henchmen."
Williams was brought with other activists and a Japanese photographer to Camp 75, a military headquarters in northeast Cairo, where he was interrogated and held for 36 hours.
"The raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center exemplifies the persistence of abusive security practices under a military establishment, which claims it wants transition from the past," he wrote. "But in this and other cases, now being documented by Human Rights Watch, the army was clearly in charge of arbitrary and sometimes violent arrests, even if the beatings and torture had been "outsourced" to other agencies or thugs."
Pressed on the issue by The Cable at today's briefing, spokesman P.J. Crowley said the State Department was aware that some military units participated in the raids but also pointed out that other military units played a role in protecting journalists and maintaining a measure of stability in Tahrir Square.
"To the extent that there were elements within the military that participated in these abuses of journalists and others last week, they should be held fully accountable," Crowley said. "By the same token, when you look at the streets of Cairo over the past several days since the violence on Wednesday, the military did play a constructive role."
Crowley said that the State Department has formally raised the issue of military involvement in the crackdowns with their Egyptian interlocutors but declined to relate the specifics of those conversations.
A State Department official, speaking on background, said that the Egyptian military was acting during the crisis "in some instances constructively, in some instances not." The official suggested that "elements" of the military were involved, specifically military police units, which have ties to the Ministry of Interior, the department believed to be orchestrating the crackdowns.
Regardless, the acknowledgement of Egyptian military involvement in the crackdowns on activists and journalists comes only four days after Crowley praised the military. "We are very impressed with the posture and the professionalism displayed by the Egyptian military," Crowley said at a Feb. 3 press briefing.
The military's involvement in the raids is a troubling indicator for the Obama administration and others that the army is not altogether playing a mediating role during Egypt's transition process.
"It's a worrying sign of things to come," Heba Morayef, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch," told McClatchy, "because the military is going to play a big role going forward."
Following last week's unanimous vote by the Senate in support of political reform in Egypt, a group of House Democrats are calling on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to follow suit and pass an emergency resolution on Egypt.
"In view of the tragic violence unfolding in Egypt, we write to request that the House take up an emergency resolution in support of the Egyptian people and their struggle for freedom and democracy as soon as possible upon returning to session," wrote Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Keith Ellison (DFL-Minn.) in a Feb. 7 letter to Boehner.
The lawmakers said the resolution should call on the Egyptian government to halt the violence, stop blocking communications inside Egypt (which the regime already largely did last week), and call on the military to intercede on behalf of the civilians.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime has "exhausted its credibility," the lawmakers wrote, but stopped short of calling on Mubarak to step down immediately. Our sources report that the letter was crafted so as to have the best chance to build widespread bipartisan support, in the hope of moving ahead with House action at the soonest opportunity.
"This is a new day not only for Egypt and the Middle East, but for democracy worldwide," the lawmakers wrote. "The House of Representatives has an opportunity to show its support for the Egyptian people during their time of need and further their efforts to achieve freedom by passing the aforementioned resolution."
Boehner supported the Obama administration's handling of the crisis in his most recent remarks about Egypt on Feb. 4. However, he also warned about empowering some groups that are part of the opposition, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. "What we don't want are radical ideologies to take control of a very large and important country in the Middle East," he said.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images.
The Obama administration's message on Egypt and the fate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been evolving ever since protesters took to the streets of Cairo on Jan. 25, but conflicting messages from different parts of the administration are complicating the U.S. stance going forward.
The White House has been sending out the message that the U.S. is pushing the Mubarak regime to keep making further concessions to the opposition and that the transition to new leaders must begin immediately. Meanwhile, the State Department and its handpicked envoy have been more supportive of Mubarak and his new vice president, Omar Suleiman; and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now has explicitly endorsed Suleiman as the man to oversee the transition process.
The latest sign of this split inside the administration came over the weekend when it was announced that Mubarak's son, Gamal Mubarak, would step down as head of the ruling National Democratic Party.
"As the President has repeatedly said, Egyptians will be the ones that decide how this transition occurs. We welcome any step that provides credibility to that process," Tommy Vietor, National Security Council spokesman told reporters via email.
"We view this as a positive step toward the political change that will be necessary and look forward to additional steps," a senior administration official said, indicating that this official wanted the regime to do more to satisfy the opposition's grievances.
Those comments stand in contrast to statements over the weekend by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her handpicked unofficial envoy to Mubarak, Frank Wisner, who was revealed to be working with a the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which has Mubarak as a client.
"There are forces at work in any society, and particularly one that is facing these kinds of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda," Clinton told the Munich Security Conference over the weekend. "Which is why I think it's important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by now Vice President Omar Suleiman."
At the conference, Wisner went even further than Clinton, endorsing not only the leadership of Suleiman but also outwardly calling for Mubarak to stay in power throughout the transition process.
"We need to get a national consensus around the preconditions for the
next step forward. The president must stay in office to steer those
changes," Wisner told the conference.
"I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical -- it's
his chance to write his own legacy."
In an interview with NPR on Feb. 6, Clinton was forced to distance herself from Wisner's remarks. "He does not speak for the American government; he does not reflect our policies," Clinton said. She also refused to weigh in on the future of Mubarak: "Now, again, this is up to the Egyptian people."
But even Clinton's comments at the conference, supporting the process put forth by Suleiman, go further than what the White House has said, and further than what Obama said in his Sunday interview with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly.
"The Egyptian people want freedom, they want free and fair elections, they want a representative government, they want a responsive government. So what we've said is, you've got to start a transition now," Obama said.
Clinton spoke on Feb. 5 with Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik and emphasized "the need to ensure that the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people are met, and that a broad cross-section of political actors and civil society have to be a part of the Egyptian-led process," a State Department readout of the conversation stated.
Throughout the weekend, the National Security Council continued to hold 8:30 a.m. morning meetings with senior officials from several agencies at the White House, and President Obama continued to call leaders around the world over the weekend to discuss the situation in Egypt, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
Experts noted that the administration understands that there is a limit to the influence it has with regard to how the Mubarak regime will engage the new process of reform. But, at the very least, the administration must defend the ideas that all stakeholders are included and that the reform process is legitimate and based on sound democratic practices.
"What's most important is for us to have a set of principles for an Egyptian government to support," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Despite what appears to be greater calm on the streets in Egypt over the weekend, the State Department sent out a new Travel Warning on Sunday, Feb. 6, that instructs all American citizens to leave Egypt now.
The new, stronger alert replaces a previous Travel Warning from Feb. 1 that called for the departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel and their families. The State Department had been chartering planes to help evacuate American citizens from Cairo, but those flights have now stopped. Nevertheless, the new Travel Warning calls for all citizens to leave Egypt, noting the potential for more violence in the offing.
"U.S. citizens should consider leaving Egypt as soon as they can safely do so, due to ongoing political and social unrest," the Travel Warning stated. "Large-scale demonstrations with the potential for violence continue in several areas of the country, and there are periodic overland travel disruptions."
The international airport in Cairo is open and has availability on outgoing flights, the State Department said, adding that travelers can also leave Egypt from airports in Luxor, Alexandria, and Aswan.
"Do not wait for a reply from the embassy or the Department of State before traveling to the nearest airport; further delay is not advised," the warning stated.
The State Department is also calling on U.S. citizens to avoid all demonstrations and to not go near Tahrir Square, for fear that foreigners could again become targets of violence.
Travelers are still encouraged to register in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at https://travelregistration.state.gov. If you are in Egypt and have an emergency, you can contact the embassy at EmergencyEgyptUSC@state.gov or at 1-202-501-4444 during business hours and after hours at 2797-3300.
As the Obama administration works to encourage the Egyptian government and opposition groups to sit down together and chart a path forward, they are grappling with problem of what to do about a legal system in Egypt that is inherently unfair but that remains the law of the land.
The Obama administration's message is that the path forward in Egypt must be negotiated between all of the stakeholders in Egypt rather than imposed from abroad. However, the administration also has concrete ideals and standards its wants to see included in that process and officials are involved in discussing those details with the Egyptian government.
"The future of Egypt will be determined by its people... That transition must initiate a process that respects the universal rights of the Egyptian people and that leads to free and fair elections. And the details of this transition will be worked out by Egyptians," President Barack Obama said Friday. "What we can do, though, is affirm the core principles that are going to be involved in that transition."
Behind the scenes, administration officials are in fact getting into the details of the process. "[O]fficials from both governments are continuing talks about a plan in which Mr. [Omar] Suleiman, backed by Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, chief of the Egyptian armed forces, and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the defense minister, would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform," the New York Times reported.
The details of that constitutional reform are crucial because they will determine the transition of power and whether or not the coming presidential elections are free and fair. Also, the process of constitutional reform will be the first test of whether the regime led by President Hosni Mubarak is actually allowing opposition groups to participate in a substantive manner.
The Obama administration, which has placed itself somewhere between the positions of the Egyptian government and the protesters by calling for a transition of government now but not calling for Mubarak's immediate departure, is well aware of these realities, according to experts close to top officials.
"The White House recognizes that there's a legal nightmare looming and that the establishment in Egypt is putting its bet on the fact that its fortunes rise the longer those knots remain tied," said the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons.
He said that the White House would like to see the immediate establishment of a governing council -- made up of a cross section of groups representing various Egyptian political entities -- that would take temporary stewardship of the government and be caretakers as the path forward is determined.
"You either do government and legal reform in one massive fell swoop, which none of the parties will agree to, or you basically say that the current system is so broken, you must give super powers to an anointed group of rivals and co-task them with the responsibility of getting from here to there," Clemons said.
But it will be a Herculean task untangling the Egyptian constitution and legal framework, seeing as so much is weighted toward the regime. For example, Article 5 would need to be amended to allow religiously based political parties to participate. Article 76 must be amended if independent candidates are to be allowed. Law No. 40 for 1977 needs to be changed to ensure that the committee that vets political parties is independent and not filled with government ministers. Law No. 174 for 2005 would have to be amended to allow monitors at election stations.
Voter registration in Egypt is also plagued with problems. The emergency law in place since 1981 significantly constrains political activity that could impact any future elections. Laws and regulations on campaign finance have to be enforced. And the list goes on and on.
The Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan said that basing the next round of elections on exiting Egyptian law is a recipe for disaster. "You wouldn't expect to have elections in Russia after communism based on Soviet laws, would you?" he said in an interview with The Cable.
The Egyptian government can't be left to its own devices to decide what those changes might be, Kagan said.
"This is a transition, there's going to have to be some agreement on the rules of the road. Maybe some of it can be based on Egyptian law," he said. "There's going to have to be agreement from the government, the military and the opposition on how to move forward."
How much of a role the U.S. can play in that process is not yet determined, but in order to support democratic values as well as to try and promote an outcome that protects U.S. interests of regional stability, the Obama administration has to at least try, said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"What's most important is for us to have a set of principles for an Egyptian government to support," Satloff said. "The U.S. has a possibility to help Egypt build a new system that is democratic and stable. Those things are not mutually exclusive and the U.S. should help them build it."
Congress is out ahead of the administration in calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down and for the United States to cut off military aid to his regime. But while some believe the White House is using Congress to send Mubarak tough messages they don't want to -- or can't -- send themselves, it appears that Congress is reacting to events independently from the administration.
Thursday evening, all 100 senators passed a resolution that calls on Mubarak to immediate transfer power to an interim caretaker government, for that government to immediately begin a transparent process toward a free election, for the presence of international election monitors on the ground in Egypt, and "expresses deep concern over any organization that espouses an extremist ideology, including the Muslim Brotherhood."
The resolution was led by two unlikely bedfellows, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ).
Congress's stance is markedly more assertive than that of the Obama administration, which still won't publicly call for Mubarak to leave office immediately. And the administration is not going anywhere near making comments about the Muslim Brotherhood.
Experts said the administration actually benefits from having a Congress that sends stronger messages and places outside pressure on the Egyptian government.
"Whether it's a conscious or unconscious, there's a useful good cop bad cop element to all this. The administration doesn't have to overtly threaten aid to the military, but it's very useful for the Egyptian military to know that their aid could be cut off," said the Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan. "I wouldn't be surprised if the administration, without engineering this, welcomes the pressure from Congress."
But both the White House and the Senate argue strenuously that any benefits from this dual messaging are purely accidental, and Congressional moves such as the Kerry-McCain resolution are not being coordinated with the White House.
"This legislation was crafted by Senators Kerry and McCain without input from the White House," National Security Staff spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
"The White House was not consulted. The resolution was the product of an agreement between Senator Kerry and Senator McCain," SFRC spokesman Frederick Jones said to The Cable.
Even Kerry's Feb.1 op-ed in the New York Times, which was also out ahead of the administration's message at that time in calling for Mubarak to step aside, was not coordinated with the White House, Jones insisted.
So what about McCain's call on Wednesday for Mubarak to step aside now? At the time, due to McCain's meeting with Obama earlier that day, that seemed like an idea coordinated with the White House. But no, both sides insist that was not a move planned in conjunction with the White House.
"Senator McCain has been closely monitoring the situation in Egypt and the region as a whole - its McCain being McCain," said McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan, who pointed out that McCain sponsored a similar resolution last year with Sen. Russ Feingold. The Cable reported this week that resolution died during the lame duck session.
There are other signs that Capitol Hill's tough message on Egypt is not following a White House lead. On Thursday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Ops, declared that U.S. aid to Egypt was on hold until the crisis gets sorted out.
"The fact of the matter is, there's not going to be further foreign aid to Egypt until this gets settled," Leahy told Congressional Quarterly. "Certainly I do not intend to bring it through my committee."
That's exactly the opposite of the message administration officials are sending to Egypt, considering that they are depending on their relationship with the Egyptian military to provide leverage in helping guide the crisis back to some measure of stability.
"We will evaluate the actions of the government of Egypt in making and reviewing decisions about aid. That continues," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Feb. 3.
The administration's position on aid to Egypt was supported on Thursday by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is expected to become the next ranking Republican on Leahy's subcommittee. On the Senate floor on Thursday, Graham asked lawmakers to "consider the consequences of such an action. Give the Egyptian people a chance to work this out."
Experts who are in touch with the administration agree that while the administration has been consulting with Capitol Hill, the notion that the two branches are working together on coordinating the U.S. government's message to Egypt just isn't true.
"Congress is just being Congress," said the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.